Adopting Servant Leadership in your Project Management Methodology

Servant Leadership


A good friend of mine reached out to me after my last article and asked:

Are you doing any articles on the other roles – the ones that can sabotage a project? For example, the narcissist, the project sycophant (who won’t say no to any task, so all tasks are at risk), or the incompetent “learner” who’s just there to add dead weight.

My first thought is that this person doesn’t exist in a sports team environment, because if they did you would work quickly to trade them to another team. Make them someone else’s problem. But after thinking about it, she’s right. While I can’t say that this has happened to me on every project, it has happened. They are the disenfranchised or distracting players. The ones who, for whatever reason, feel like they have been wronged by the team, the coach, the “insert name here” and can quickly derail the meeting and the project with their issue(s).

Many of us would be quick to think of the following two ways of dealing with this type of project member — kick them off the team or ignore them. Even though that makes us feel justified and in control, I would redirect you to thinking about Servant Leadership.

If this is your first time hearing the term, you might need to do some homework. It comes from Robert Greenleaf’s essay titled “The Servant as Leader”, published in 1970. You can find a copy on the internet. Its 28 pages. Totally do-able read.

Greenleaf’s essay discusses power and authority in a societal context that parallel into large, complex institutions. He contrasts the leader who uses positional authority and coercive power versus a servant who leverages persuasion and demonstrates by example to gain power and authority. According to Greenleaf, a Servant Leader needs three skills; situational awareness and sense of perception, ability to listen to understand, and persuade without coercive or positional power. There are many business management books that have applied Greenleaf’s principles to the larger organizational management challenges, but these principles can also be absorbed into project teams.  Like servants, Project Manager’s usually rise from within the organization. They have learned by doing. And like Servant Leaders, Project Managers don’t typically have positional authority or coercive power to yield, so influence and relationships are paramount.

So to my friend, when encountering a disruptive project team member, think of the skills of a Servant Leader:

  1. Recognize the situation
  2. Listen to the team member and try to understand their perception
  3. Work with them to resolve the problem and help change their perception

It’s not possible for, nor is it the obligation of, the Project Manager to resolve all the issues of a saboteur team member. The organizational culture may even contradict the Servant Leader tenants. However, being insightful, showing empathy and working collaboratively builds a sense of trust, empowerment, and motivation which is the responsibility of the Project Manager.

“Our patience will achieve more than our force.” Edmund Burke


If you found this article helpful, connect or follow Tiffany Rosik on LinkedIn.

Tiffany Rosik, with TGR Management Consulting, is focused on helping software development companies in the healthcare industry achieve customer success by developing a scalable model to efficiently deploy software, coordinate resources and manage team communication.

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